Wednesday 13 December 2017

The art of making good pasta - without turning into a couch potato

Within nine months of launch, the couple behind Leaves Pure Food were selling their pasta in 300 stores around Ireland

Sabine Hobbel and her husband Nico Olivieri: ‘We didn’t want to be slowed down by how our digestive system felt.’ Photo: Joleen Cronin
Sabine Hobbel and her husband Nico Olivieri: ‘We didn’t want to be slowed down by how our digestive system felt.’ Photo: Joleen Cronin
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

As a child Sabine Hobbel never liked the bread that her brother ate. Her brother had a severe egg and wheat allergy at the time. "So my mum was always buying unusual products from health food stores and I remember thinking that my brother's bread was just such awful, crumbly stuff," says Hobbel.

It's no surprise then that Hobbel decided to make her living creating food which she believes doesn't just make you feel good - but which tastes good too.

Hobbel is from the Netherlands and her husband, Nico Olivieri, is Italian. The couple set up Leaves Pure Food in January 2015 - about a year after they moved to Ireland. The company makes wheat-free pasta. Neither Hobbel nor her husband are allergic to wheat - but they did find themselves feeling bloated and uncomfortable after eating pasta - and it was this which gave them the idea for their company.

"As we are a part-Italian family, we eat loads of pasta," says Hobbel. "Even though pasta was something we really loved, we wanted to be sure we felt energised and great afterwards - rather than bloated and heavy. In Dublin, we noticed a lot of people were trying to move away from wheat-based products - as they also felt heavy and bloated afterwards.

"It is a wonderful experience to enjoy the flavour of food while you eat it, but it is equally important to feel light and energised when you digest it. We felt that it was such a waste that after eating pasta, all you wanted to do was to sit on the couch. We didn't want to be slowed down by how our digestive system felt."

That's why the couple set about creating a wheat-free pasta that was healthy and natural and which tasted good - and which wouldn't leave them feeling bloated afterwards. There were a number of companies providing wheat-free pasta before the couple set up Leaves Pure Food - but like the bread which Hobbel remembers her brother eating as a child, much of this pasta didn't taste that great.

"A lot of the wheat-free pasta being sold in the past was mushy and the texture wasn't that nice," says Hobbel. "It didn't give people what they expected from good pasta."

The couple launched their pasta in July 2015 and initially sold it in farmers' markets. They then went on to sell their pasta in 12 SuperValu stores. Within nine months of launching their pasta, it was being sold in all SuperValu stores nationwide. A number of health food stores and independent stores also started to sell the pasta. "So by April 2016, we were available in over 300 retail outlets in Ireland," says Hobbel.

When the company first started to make its pasta, it made everything by hand in a commercial kitchen in Smithfield. The increased demand for the company's pasta meant that it wasn't long before it could no longer produce its pasta in Smithfield.

"We upgraded our machinery, but within a few months, we realised that our kitchen was no longer suitable," says Hobbel. "We use traditional Italian methods when producing our pasta so that means that we have a drying time of over 12 hours - as opposed to mass-produced pasta, which is ready in under three hours. This long drying time meant that we had reached maximum capacity in our commercial kitchen. We looked for producers in Ireland who could make pasta in the way we wanted it. Unfortunately, nobody was able to make it in Ireland or Britain to our specifications."

So the company is now outsourcing its production to Italy. "It is now made to our precise specifications by a third-generation pasta master," says Hobble. "We have plans in place to bring the production back to Ireland as soon as feasible."

The company itself is still based in the Guinness Enterprise Centre in Dublin and the couple want to keep their business here in Ireland. They expect the demand for their pasta to increase even more over the next few years.

The health and wellness pasta sector is the fastest-growing segment in the pasta products category - and is estimated to be worth over €75m in Ireland and Britain by 2018, according to Hobbel. "People are getting more aware that what they're eating has an effect on their life," says Hobbel. "More and more people are looking for high-quality products. Our ingredients are organic. People are excited that you can get a high quality pasta. Before, people often saw pasta as a cheap commodity. But cheapest doesn't always make you feel best."

The company does not yet export its pasta - but it has big plans.

"The Irish market is our biggest market - because we started in Ireland," says Hobbel. "In 2017, we will be launching in the UK. We are working on very detailed export plans. The UK market [for wheat-free pasta] is a bit more advanced than Ireland. In Ireland, people are quite new to the idea of wheat-free pasta whereas in the UK, people are familiar with things like pasta made from lentils, pasta made from beans and so on. Going forward, within Europe, we are hoping to target a few markets together. We are considering the Netherlands and Italy but only in the long-term - not in the short-term. The value of the combined market for health and well-being products in Ireland, the UK, Italy, Holland, Germany and Sweden is €6bn."

The company's best-selling products are its buckwheat and chickpea fusilli originale and its buckwheat and chickpea garlic penne. "Our sage pasta - buckwheat and chickpea macaroni and sage - is for the more adventurous eaters," says Hobbel. All of these products are wheat-, dairy- and egg-free. They all come in 100g packs - and there are also 300g packs of the fusilli originale and the garlic penne available in SuperValu.

"We launched our 300g pack in SuperValu in early October after our customers wrote to us looking for larger pasta packs," says Hobbel.

The couple would like to branch out into other products in the future but, for the moment, their sights are very much set on pasta - and their British export plans.

"We are not limiting ourselves to pasta," says Hobbel. "We would like to branch out into other products - products that are healthy and staple foods but with a bit of a twist. We see ourselves as a brand which will bring people closer to a healthy and joyful life. For the moment though, we are concentrating on pasta."

The couple have been living in Ireland since January 2014.

Hobbel, who is originally from Rotterdam, worked as a health researcher in the University of Amsterdam - and it was in Amsterdam that she met her husband.

"Nico and I always wanted to live in an English-speaking country," says Hobbel. "Nico had been to Ireland a few times and the plan was for us to go and check Ireland out for a week. So we took a trip to Dublin. Three hours after we had landed, we had decided to stay here."

The couple have one son - Aidan - who turned two last September. They therefore had the challenge of setting up and running their own company - at the same time as having a very young child.

"This is the second year of our company, and we just celebrated Aidan's second birthday," says Hobbel. "The two things happened together, which means that we are on a constant rollercoaster.

"At times we feel lucky because there are victories with our company and beautiful moments with our son Aidan - which often coincide. However, there are also moments that it is just so hard to combine and juggle these different roles."

Sunday Indo Business

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